On a 90-degree Wednesday morning, the Philadelphia Gas Works unveiled some hot cars spouting dramatic blue flames that may turn some heads.
The city-owned utility unveiled 24 new Honda Civic sedans that use compressed natural gas (CNG) as fuel. Seven of the cars are wrapped in vinyl advertisements featuring PGW's logo, and blue natural gas flames pouring from the grill across the hood and around the fenders.
Craig White, PGW's chief executive, said he balked before approving the incendiary look of a NASCAR entry gone astray. But the aim of the cars is to market CNG to fleet owners. What better advocate than the company that sells the fuel?
"If we don't do it, if we're not willing to use it, obviously customers and people in Philadelphia, why would they use it?" White said.
PGW ordered the cars last year after the Philadelphia Gas Commission and City Council allowed it to add $438,000 to its $3.1 million vehicle budget to cover the higher cost of the CNG sedans.
PGW readily acknowledged that it will not recover the higher price through a conventional cost-benefit calculus. Natural gas sells for less than a $2-a-gallon equivalent, but PGW's cars are driven less than 8,000 miles a year, a rate at which it is difficult to justify the car's $12,560 in higher costs.
The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection chipped in with a $240,000 Alternative Fuels Incentive Grant for the 24 sedans plus 26 vans that PGW plans for next year.
DEP Secretary E. Christopher Abruzzo, who attended Wednesday's event, lauded the utility and the cleaner-burning attributes of natural gas. CNG vehicles reduce emissions of the most harmful pollutants by 90 percent, and emit 13 percent to 21 percent less in greenhouse gases than comparable gasoline or diesel vehicles.
John C. Zuk, PGW's vice president of marketing, said that most of the CNG sedans will be assigned to the utility's sales force, whose members crisscross the city on their rounds, giving the garish advertisements maximum exposure.